THE LAWSON’S PEAK BOOKS

Going

I sneezed. “Okay, but what about my obsession with mountains and mountain streams and trout?” I asked, trying to dry out my hankerchief by holding it near the woodstove.

This is what Erskine Lightman, fifth-generation master of Smoky Mountain folk medicine and trout fishing said, “Only one thing to do: shoot yourself.”

– Harry Middleton, On the Spine of Time

It’s only mid February. Unthinkable that a man would want to go to a creek that has been shivering in low-slung, defrocked hills, slowed by winter’s crippling freezes. It’s just plain silly and perhaps even a little nuts.

Nonetheless, I am going.

I said here not long ago, moaning about the fish not biting while on the creek is stil far, far better than moaning about the fish not biting while lying on the sofa at home. There’s a fisherman’s wisdom for you.

Too long have I been sheltered from the cold by the vigilant and comforting walls of my old house. I crave its warmth, cherish its nurture, but the winter has been far too long, and though it is likely not over, this brief spell of what used to be called “Indian summer” has my neck hairs standing on end. I am in sore and dire need of wildness.

It’s weeks yet before the wild azaleas will shower outward; weeks before the dogwoods will bloom, and the black-eyed Susans begin to sprout along the dirt and gravel roads. It’ll be, at best, 70 degrees Saturday in those smooth, worn hills to our north, likely in the 50s when I arrive in the morning. But I am starved for wildness. The famine of winter is not nutritional, it is spiritual.

There are no trout where I am going. Trout are from Harry’s world, and the closest trout I know of are in the Little Missouri River, where it springs from the dam at Lake Gresson in lower central Arkansas. There were no trout in Arkansas until settlers began seeding them in some of the spring-fed rivers that stayed cold enough year-round to support them. In the mid-1800s rainbows and brown trout where introduced in some rivers in north Arkansas and southern Missouri, but it was not until the building of the great dams that release cold, clean water from the depths of the lakes behind them, that trout gained a solid foothold.

I have caught, by my reckoning, perhaps 25 trout in my life. The last two were in north Arkansas, one on the Norfork River and the second on the Spring River. The rest came from Cutbank Creek and Otatsa Creek in northern Montana. I hooked a rainbow at Metcalf Bottoms on the Little River in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, slightly smaller than my pinky finger, but when I set the hook it erupted from the water and I slung it over my right shoulder. When the fly line unfurled all the way behind me, it flew off the hook and was gone. So I don’t count that one.

Like Harry, my fishing is an excuse to immerse myself in wildness. It is an avenue to escape into the strong scents of pines and standing in “some stretch of bright water, full of possibilities, including the possibility of trout, perhaps one that, when hooked, will haul me in and out of time, in and out of life’s mysterious and frightening, wondrous and incomprehensible continuum, even to the edges of the universe.”

There are no trout where I am going this weekend, but there are spotted bass, as fine a substitute for trout as can be had at these latitudes. They are likely still cold; unlike trout they need warm water to flourish and become active. And one of the things that attracts me to those wind- and water-carved hills so far from home is that they belong there. Unlike in our precious Atchafalaya Basin, where the state has for decades stocked Florida strain bass to meet the demands of anglers for bigger, brutish fish. Unfortunately, these invaders are displacing our native largemouth, a far superior fish so far as many of us are concerned.

The spotted bass, or “spots” as we call them, are truly wild and respond to the connection between themselves and the angler just as Harry described. They don’t get very big on these little creeks. Most of the fish I catch there are miniscule compared to the behemouth invasive largemouth of the basin, laughable even. But they are replete with frenetic wildness: Through the grip of my fly rod I can feel their powerful flanks pulse, wild, kinetic energy bent on nothing else but continuing to be wild and unfettered. Free.

No matter. It’s highly unlikely a spot will even grace us with a nibble. Weeks, most likely, before they want to move about, as the sun warms the creek and their metabolism rises, growing wilder and wilder each notch of the rising mercury.

Yes, I’m going. I’ll probably do more hiking and exploring than fishing, truth be told. There are mysteries to ponder there, wonders to uncover. They may be so tiny as a bud on a creekside shrub. They may be large as a sandstone bluff from which a small spring seeps clean, cold water.

Harry med Allie Carlyle in the Smokies, and she took a liking to him, trusted him, and told him about the places she knew.

“I don’t know why I’m trusting in you, but I am,” she said. “Keep all of this to yourself. There’s knee-deep silence up on those creeks, quiet that hasn’t been broken just yet. Leave some when you go.”

So I am going. I am going to be there. And that, at all times, is enough.

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